Waggish

Bohumil Hrabal: I Served the King of England

I read Hrabal many years ago in a small-press English language edition of Total Fears, portraying the wandering mind of an aging writer and what might be most accurately termed his tulpa, a female correspondent that he monologues to and rhapsodizes over. I haven’t been as thrilled with the Czech literature I’ve read as with much of the Hungarian and Serbo-Croatian work that oft en dealt in similar socio-political issues. (One very significant exception is Ludvik Vaculik.) And so I never got around to reading much of Hrabal’s other work, until I was reminded of him by James Wood in one of the articles in The Irresponsible Self. Wood gives a good overview of Hrabal’s spirit, but there are some things in I Served the King of England, specifically in his treatment of the historical material, that Wood doesn’t mention.

First, his verbal style. The book reads fantastically well in English, and I can’t believe it’s all translator Paul Wilson’s doing. Hrabal writes in a breezy, propulsive way, tossing off curious images even as he keeps things going quite quickly. The style supports big events and little ones nearly equally, and the blending of them (very important in this novel) comes off a lot more seamlessly than it does in, for example, a Jonathan Franzen or Don DeLillo novel, where the pressures of larger concerns pull the reader away from the characters.

But the structure helps as well: I Served the King of England is about a very short waiter named Ditie, who holds jobs at a couple hotels before getting involved with a blond Nazi after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, then moving on to start his own hotel (built out of a blacksmith shop in an abandoned quarry) before losing it to Communism and spending time in a minimum-security (absolute minimum) prison for millionaires.

Those are the bare bones of the plot. Like Grass’s The Tin Drum, it portrays the skewed, sometimes myopic perspective of someone who doesn’t feel fully human because of their shortness, but the incidental details are less horrific and surreal than they are comical and short-sighted. Ditie is looking up at those around him, literally and figuratively, and pushed down by a headwaiter who claims expertise because he once “served the king of England.” (Ditie later serves the Emperor of Ethiopia and comes to attribute all his skills to it.) And a very long time is spent in the restaurants before the Nazi invasion. The novel is half over and all that has happened is that Ditie has gotten a series of slightly better waitering jobs, had some farcical encounters with perfectionist waiters and, of course, the Emperor of Ethiopia. The “historical” events are all relegated to the last half of the novel, and there is little indication in the first half that they are coming.

And indeed, when they do come, Ditie only sees them through his perspective, which, unlike Oskar’s in The Tin Drum, is that of a man inside history, not a child outside of it. When Ditie meets the Nazi girl:

She was attractively dressed, and to get on the good side of her and show her how grateful I was that she spoke German with me I said it was awful what the Czechs were doing to those poor German students, that I’d seen with my own eyes on Narodni how they pulled the white socks and brown shirts off two German students. And she told me that I spoke the truth, that Prague was part of the old German Empire and the Germans had an inalienable right to walk about the city dressed according to their own customs.

He quickly gets an in with the Germans and soon enough faces his old master headwaiter, now as an important customer, and tells him, “You may have served the King of England but it hasn’t done you any good.” He leaves his wife and child (who end up being the subjects of an experiment to see what sort of Aryan baby could be made with a Czech) after suffering a crisis of conscience over the horrors of the war. Yet Hrabal never pulls back enough to see anything beyond Ditie’s eyes, and the book reads as one of the most immanent stories of life around the war. It is farcical and unrealistic, but the remote backdrop of history, kept carefully in check, quietly undermines the position that the history is known as it has been written. Ditie remains half-unknowing and half-happy, and his experiences are shaped more by the odd fraction of life that he experiences than by any larger world outcomes. Against the backdrop of the war, this is alternately amusing (allowing the reader to condescend to Ditie) and horrific; the vividness of the first half takes on as much narrative weight as the second, which is Hrabal’s achievement.

When, much later, he ends up doing manual labor in a gamekeeper’s lodge in a forest, he has lost everything and feels happier for it. He does not treasure his successful days of past, but nor does he quite regret them, and he makes no excuses nor asks for any forgiveness, remaining too happy to be just a waiter and servant. It is, Hrabal implies, how he can live. Ditie shrugs metaphorically at the end, with relief rather than indifference. The story, with the structure of a tall tale and the scenery of historical horror, does not give a moral or a resolution. It is affirming, but it requires that all the good and bad be affirmed together.

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